Looking Back on the Follies of Youth

I spent Sunday afternoon at an all-class reunion for my high school in Sumner, Illinois. Our town was a small town; our school was a small school, the sort where everyone knew everyone else and where your embarrassing and criminal moments stood out and became the stuff of stories to be told for years and years. I’m sure you can understand, then, that I went to the reunion with a certain amount of dread. I couldn’t help but carry with me all the memories from those high school days along with the fear that others would remember all the stupid things I did. It turned out, though, that everyone was kind, and I had a very enjoyable time.

The day made me think about how, when it comes to writing memoir, we often need a forgiving, ironic eye for the missteps of our youth. Last year around this time, I made a post about this very subject. I remember, as an adult, finding a box of cassette tapes I made when I was fifteen. On one of them, I was singing the Three Dog Night hit, “Eli’s Coming.” I was singing fervently. “There I was on that tape,” I wrote, “. . . singing my heart out, singing so dramatically, so urgently, so earnestly. It was the funniest damn thing I’d ever heard, funny from the perspective of nearly forty years.” I go on to write about the importance of looking back on our youthful experiences with forgiveness and, if we can manage it, amusement.

So here’s a writing activity:

Recall a painful moment from your high school years, one that you’d rather not, given the choice, revisit. Write about that moment with the honor and the reverence it deserves. You might even begin with the words, “I confess. . . .” Then challenge yourself, from the distance and the greater perspective that you now have, to find some humor in the situation. You might use the prompt, “What a fool I was. When I look back at that boy or girl now, I can’t help but laugh because. . . .” Use the dual stance of the young person you were and the older person you are now to narrate the experience as it was then and also how it seems to you now as you look back upon it.

Finding humor in what were serious and painful moments can lend a texture to our writing. This isn’t to say that it’ll always be possible to find that humor, but often time gives us that ability, and, if it does, we shouldn’t deny it when we write memoir.


  1. Cheryl Engledow Redman on September 12, 2016 at 8:07 am

    I think when we look back, our own missteps are what stand out. With the memories of others, I believe we are often more kinder and forgiving.
    I look back fondly at our high school days. One of my favorite classes was the advanced math class with Chuck Miller. We coveed some deep subjects in that class. The small class size made it eaiser to talk free, at least for me.
    I enjoy you writing Lee. It is fun reading your novels and seeing a familiarity.
    I love the fact you and Cathy have found each other again.

  2. Billy Kilgore on September 12, 2016 at 9:21 am

    Lee, I enjoyed this post and look forward to trying the writing exercise. I like the challenge of finding humor in a humiliating past experience. One question: did they have cassette tapes in the 1970’s? 😉

  3. Lee Martin on September 12, 2016 at 10:30 am

    Billy, we did indeed have cassette tapes in the late 60s and the 70s. Most of us had small recorder, and it was common to record songs from the radiio.

  4. Denyse Eagleson on September 12, 2016 at 9:32 pm

    It’s hard to believe that with all you successes and amazing accomplishments since high school that you would have the slightest hesitation in heading to a high school reunion. One of your lines is always in the back of my mind and I think it was something like this “I was not much different than the person I was back then.”

    • Lee Martin on September 13, 2016 at 10:45 am

      Well, Denyse, we all carry our pasts around with us, yes?

  5. Richard Gilbert on September 16, 2016 at 9:30 pm

    Thanks for another great prompt to use and teach, Lee. Like your classic shoe prompt, this seems to touch universal experience. There is so much from high school that it’s still awkward for me to remember—and I’m past 60!

    • Lee Martin on September 19, 2016 at 11:28 am

      Richard, I’m with you in that respect. Those high school years, when everyone is struggling to define themselves, is always rich fodder for essays.

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